Appreciating John Polkinghorne: An Easter Remembrance

“There were giants in the earth in those days” – Genesis 6:4

John PolkinghorneWith a rare mixture of sadness and admiration, I learned that John Polkinghorne went to be with God on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. A proud Cornishman, John was born in 1930 to a working class family in a seaside town. The youngest of three children, his brother died in World War II and a sister in infancy. Reared in the devout Christian faith of his parents, John liked to describe himself as a “cradle Christian.” As he wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot recall a time when I was not in some real way a member of the worshipping and believing community of the Church” (From Physicist to Priest, 7). A strong desire to minister to the body of Christ through word and sacrament led John fundamentally to change course in his late forties, when he resigned his professorship in physics at Cambridge to become an Anglican priest. It was a stunning decision for someone in the same academic department as the first Islamic Nobel Laureate, Abdus Salam (John’s doctoral advisor), and the late Stephen Hawking, who later became the most famous scientist in the world. If his colleagues were not entirely surprised that he sought a larger role in the church, they were astonished that he gave up physics.

A brilliant mathematician, John had risen very high in physics himself. As an undergraduate, he had learned quantum mechanics (QM) from Paul Dirac, whom he regarded as “undoubtedly the greatest British theoretical physicist of the twentieth century.” Hearing Dirac lecture was “profound.” John was “carried along enthralled by the experience,” which he compared with listening to a Bach fugue (26). After working with Salam, he was a postdoctoral student at Caltech with Murray Gell-Mann, famous for bringing James Joyce’s word “quark” into particle physics and developing a robust theory by that name. QM became John’s own specialty too. His book, The Quantum World (1986), sold upwards of 100,000 copies, and his elegant little paperback on QM for Oxford University Press’ popular series of “Very Short Introductions” is still mostly readable to this former physics student who hasn’t studied QM in nearly fifty years. In the classroom, however, John brought Dirac’s rigor to the task, rapidly filling the chalkboard with equations and putting the fear of God into his students. “I was terrified of him,” a world-class astrophysicist once told me. That reminded me of a similar statement from a fellow historian of science, who had done his first degree at Cambridge in physics.

My own encounters with John were not nearly as scary. I first met him somewhere around 1989, when I joined Michael Hunter’s research project on the unpublished papers of Robert Boyle, housed at the Royal Society in London. The Society kept a book in the library, containing chapters about the life and work of each Fellow, the highest honor in British science. John had been elected a Fellow in 1974. One day while taking a break from reading seventeenth-century manuscripts, I stumbled upon the book, read his story and saw the accompanying photograph. I had only just recently heard his name mentioned very favorably by a friend. As it happens, a little while later I noticed a well-dressed man in a clerical collar browsing casually in a corner of the library. Knowing that ordained Fellows were almost as rare as magnetic monopoles, I had probable cause to introduce myself. Sheepishly, I ambled awkwardly across the room. Pardon me, sir, are you perhaps Professor Polkinghorne? The wide grin and the friendly eyes gave me the answer even before he spoke. When I expressed interest in learning more about his work, he invited me in the warmest possible terms to attend the lecture he was giving that same evening in a famous London church, St Lawrence Jewry.

I no longer remember what he said, but the sinking feeling of being in over my head was hard to forget. Yet, I recognized that important ideas were coming out of his balding head, that when his bushy eyebrows moved I needed to pay close attention. It was a rocky start, but a decade later I had learned enough to help students read Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998) with some appreciation.

What do I myself appreciate most about Polkinghorne? He had the convictions of a traditional Christian, coupled with genuine brilliance, a deep knowledge of scientific theory and practice, more than a rudimentary grasp of philosophy of science—and the scholarly fortitude to challenge the status quo in the burgeoning new field of “science and religion.”

When I first heard his name more than forty years ago, the academic conversation about science and religion was heavily influenced by scholars who basically believed that orthodox Christian views of God and Christ were outmoded, and that theology needed to steer a new course of process theism, panentheism, or pure naturalism masquerading as theology in a world of ideas dominated by modern science. Many theologians ignored natural theology and rejected biblical miracles, including even the bodily Resurrection—without which neither John nor I would have professed to be Christian believers at all.

John Polkinghorne speaking on “Creation,” Hostetter Chapel, Messiah University, 27 October 2006.

Case in point: In 1987, fresh out of graduate school, I attended a conference on “The Church and Contemporary Cosmology” that in some ways was my baptism into the scholarly world of science and religion. Had I donned a blindfold, I would at every turn have bumped into a famous scientist, philosopher, biblical scholar, or theologian—Ian Barbour, Eric Chaisson, David Cole, Abigail Rian Evans, Garrett Hardin, Langdon Gilkey, Douglas Knight, Ernan McMullin, Bob Russell, Joe Silk, and many others I no longer recall by name were there. Seventh heaven for a nerd like me. What I remember most, however, was a somewhat heated conversation that arose spontaneously in a large room in an interval between scheduled sessions. Its significance looms even larger given John’s passing during Lent and the Easter week we are in now. Some Protestant pastors were trying to convince a group of us science types—a couple quantum physicists, an astronomer, a biochemist, and a young historian of science—that “science” has somehow made it “impossible” to believe that Jesus’ body actually rose and the tomb was really empty. A tearful pastor admitted how hard it had been to accept, but coming to terms with science was an essential part of his theological education. For a brief moment I wondered whether I was alone in finding this conversation itself almost impossible to believe, but some of the scientists evidently shared my skepticism: science has done nothing to make the Resurrection incredible. What really was incredible, was what happened right in front of me: people who knew far more science than most pastors or theologians were trying fruitlessly to persuade the others that science is actually impotent to deny such a singular event, and that theologians who believe otherwise can blame only themselves, not “science,” for their unbelief.

My late father, a Presbyterian minister, presents another case in point. In his final years, he confessed a long-held secret, almost as if he had committed a crime: coming out of Yale Divinity School in 1945, he didn’t believe in the Resurrection. Nor did he tell the congregation when he got his first pulpit. His teachers at Yale, like many other theologians and biblical scholars since the late nineteenth century, were just too willing to jettison or “demythologize” the “supernatural” elements in the Bible, such as those “fables” about an empty tomb and the road to Emmaus, in the name of “science.”

This is what John Polkinghorne did: though he was hardly working alone, he helped tremendously to revitalize the conversation about science among Christians. He unabashedly proclaimed great biblical truths, especially what I call the “Big Three,” Creation, Resurrection, and Eschatology. He wrote beautifully about the long-neglected transcendent God who actually brought the world into being, sustains its existence now and works immanently within it, and raised Christ from the grave to give us concrete hope of an ongoing life with God in a new world beyond our own. John also understood that modern cosmology harbors rumors of transcendence that belie the standard scientific boast that nothing, or no one, had us in mind. “We live in a world whose physical fabric is endowed with transparent rational beauty,” he said with evident pleasure, and “it beggars belief that this is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, pp. 2-3). He saw with simple clarity the salient fact, obvious to many but not to certain New Atheists, that there are no “knock-down arguments, … either for theism or for atheism” (Theology in the Context of Science, p. 128), while modestly “offering theistic belief as an insightful account of what is going on” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 10).

Substantially owing to John’s outspoken advocacy of Christian truth in a scientific age, thoughtful Christians can once again view science as an ally that enhances our faith, not an enemy seeking to undermine it. He worked tirelessly to bring that message to anyone willing to hear it, yet in the midst of constant demands on his time from conference organizers and publishers, he never neglected meaningful personal connections. Gracious and outgoing, he enjoyed a good meal, listened carefully to people with very different opinions, and shared his cheerful self with all around him. On one of my trips to Cambridge, he picked me up at the rail station, gave me a tour of the private rooms he had once occupied as President of Queens’ College, and let me spend a few minutes on the world famous Mathematical Bridge (which connects two parts of that college) before taking me to dinner with former colleagues at the faculty table.

I shall miss him, but only for a season.

In memory of my friend, and reflecting on Easter this Sunday, I close with two of John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter”:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

When I walk through that door someday, I expect to see John Polkinghorne again. I’m very much looking forward to more conversation.

Matthias Grünewald, The Resurrection

Ted Davis
About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.
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